The museum sector has been the target of several climate protests this week.
Museums and galleries are on alert after protesters from the climate activist group Just Stop Oil damaged a painting at the National Gallery.
In the incident on 6 November, the two activists used emergency safety hammers to smash the glass protecting The Toilet of Venus (1647-1651) by Diego Velázquez. Better known as the “Rokeby Venus”, the nude painting was famously slashed by the suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914.
The activists entered Room 30 in the gallery just before 11am to vandalise the painting. One of them then declared: “Women did not get the vote by voting; it is time for deeds not words. It is time to Just Stop Oil.
“Politics is failing us. It failed women in 1914 and it is failing us now. New oil and gas will kill millions. If we love art, if we love life, if we love our families we must Just Stop Oil.”
The room was cleared of visitors and the two protesters, named by Just Stop Oil as Hannan (22) and Harrison (20), were arrested by police on suspicion of criminal damage.
In a statement, the National Gallery said: “The painting has now been removed from display and is being examined by conservators.
“Room 30 was reopened just after 12.30pm with A Dead Soldier, Italian (17th century) replacing The Toilet of Venus.”
Just Stop Oil has vowed to continue with its strategy of civil resistance and direct action until the UK Government commits to ending new fossil fuel licensing and production.
Meanwhile, activists from the environmental action group Extinction Rebellion demonstrated outside the Museums Association Conference 2023 in Newcastle-Gateshead on 7 November in protest at the fossil fuel stance taken by the Science Museum Group (SMG). The group's director Ian Blatchford was speaking at the conference.
Protester Anne Blair-Vincent said: "I’m deeply saddened that the Science Museum continues to accept sponsorship from fossil fuel companies which are driving the climate emergency."
The SMG has strongly defended its position on fossil fuel sponsorship, saying that energy companies will be key players in finding solutions to the climate crisis.
In light of the protests, the heritage insurance group Ecclesiastical has urged museums and galleries to be vigilant and review their security arrangements, and to take proactive steps to protect artworks and exhibits from being targeted.
Ecclesiastical guidance: Protecting artwork and exhibits
- Position stewards in any high-risk areas so they can promptly respond to any incident.
- Train staff and volunteers to recognise unusual visitor behaviour. Perpetrators may plan their attack, completing reconnaissance visits first. Suspicious or abnormal activity should be immediately reported to security or senior staff.
- Stewarding arrangements should include bag inspections at entry point and exit points from the premises.
- Consider introducing arrangements for visitor bags to be deposited at entry, to restrict the potential use of materials or objects that may cause damage.
- Introduce a visitor behaviour code on what is expected from them during the visit, including no touching of exhibits. The code should indicate visitors might be asked to leave if they do not comply.
- Paintings of particular note should be protected by a glazed panel to help minimise damage from an attack.
- Items of significant value or interest could be roped off to act as a physical barrier. These areas can be supplemented by proximity alarm systems providing immediate alerts to a steward if an area is encroached.
- Restrict visitor numbers by only allowing a maximum number of people in an area at any one time.
- CCTV can provide a valuable deterrent against damage or theft. System recordings should be retained for at least 30 days.
- Adequate lighting can discourage criminal actions especially in areas less frequently visited or patrolled. Sensors can highlight movement in these areas drawing the attention of stewards and security staff.
- Arrange for stewards to check the condition of items before the premises open or close to identify any damage that may have incurred during the last 24 hours with a view to introducing additional precautions or even removing the artwork.